Jun 14, 2014

Medieval Knievel: Brie de Provins ®


Growing up in Minnesota, I remember going to the Renaissance Festival every summer -- a fake village set up somewhere in an empty field with straw strewn about the grounds and large blond, blue-eyed people named Olson dressed up as wenches. Well, a trip to the town of Provins for its annual Medieval Festival is something like that, except without the fake village and blonds named Olson. Provins is a genuine medieval town about an hour outside of Paris that was originally built with markets in mind. For the past thousand years, large markets have been held here, and even though the merchandise has certainly changed (produce and animal skins have been replaced by a whole lot of jewelry stands), the market spirit feels authentic.

I can't vouch for the authenticity of all the costumes, however, and not just because Pippa dresses up for the occasion. There is also a heavy population of elves, sexy wenches (of course), and executioners, and I wonder if people aren't confusing the Middle Ages with Tolkien's Middle Earth. Also, people are showered, lice free, wearing comfortable shoes, and talking into cell phones, so that's not too authentically medieval either.

Anthony has a particular fondness for the anachronisms, like the knights in chain mail and shining armor gallantly pushing their strollers, or the renaissance and Victorian costumes for sale.


The setting cannot be beat. It's a real trip to be at a medieval fair in a medieval village like this. We struggle to convince the children that it's a living town. At first, they think we're pulling their legs.
The girls get into the spirit, and we are very proud to say that they choose wooden swords in leather hilts as their souvenir for the day. Given all the princessy things and crafty jewelry, and Pippa's get-up for the day, it comes as a pleasant surprise.


The girls try everything, from crossbows to regular archery with a host of medieval (or medieval-ish) games and activities thrown in for good measure. They can't be torn away from the stone carving section, and spend about twenty minutes combining efforts to chisel a tiny dent in a rock. It must give them some idea of the jaw-dropping scope of building Notre Dame with all its statues and gargoyles, by hand, in medieval times.

We buy tickets for a show, held just outside the ramparts, that turns out to be quite elaborate. The cast includes a host of live animals: geese, pigs, donkeys, horses, and even -- oddly -- a camel, used to represent how Provins was a major trading point for exotic spices and goods from afar. The plot line involves magic and more special effects and stunts than you might expect in a medieval show. I think history is being rewritten, and medival times will forever be considered a time of elves, orcs, and truly competent magicians who can stop time.


The audience loves it, and apparently wants to remember it for posterity. I think I am the only person in the audience taking pictures of the audience taking pictures of the show, but I can't help myself.

In case you wonder about the new blond child we appear to have kidnapped and/or adopted, she is not named Olson. We have good friends visiting us from San Francisco, and while the parents and younger daughter stayed back in Paris, we take Bella (who is Gigi's age, just much taller) along with us to the festival. We are all traveling south together for a week just after this, so that we will head from the town of Provins to the province of Provence.

THE CHEESE: Brie de Provins ®

Brie de Provins ® is a raw cow's milk cheese from Ile de France, that is, the area immediately around Paris (and of which Paris is a part).

It's a gooey, buttery cheese with hints of fruit and mushrooms. The crust, which is a thick bloomy white mold, develops over the 4-5 weeks of aging and ends up thick, dry, and chalky. You can eat it, of course, and I generally do. But many people, even French, might simply cut it off. It used to come in rounds of about 1.5kg (3.3lbs) but since 2000 has been made in rounds up to 2kg (4.4lbs) in order to allow it to age longer and develop deeper flavors.

This cheese has a registered trademark associated with it since 1979, effectively commercializing the manufacture process and replacing the cheese with the same name that had always been produced before that. And they don't let you forget about that trademark symbol, which is odd in so many ways. Even very commercial brands like Kiri and La Vache Qui Rit don't make such a big deal out of their trademarking. In 2010, the cheese returned to its traditional fabrication methods and was entered at the Salon du Fromage in Paris and, since, has once again been considered a high-end cheese -- trademark symbol notwithstanding.

Despite all the legal shenanigans over the name, it's an ancient cheese. It's a clear descendent of the more general "Galette de Brie de Provins" -- more often referred to simply as Brie de Provins -- which was known and admired throughout Medieval Europe. The more modern Brie de Provins ® not only shares the same name, but also the same terroir, history, and -- now -- manufacturing process.


The connection is obvious, since both the cheese and festival are from Provins. Being an ancient cheese, it's almost a sure bet that people were enjoying cheese very much like our Brie de Provins a thousand years ago in this very spot. It's a far cry from funnel cake at ye olde Minnesota Renaissance Faire.


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